OU partners with company in research and development of medicinal cannabis products

Click here for the original story from The Athens New

By David DeWitt, Associate Editor

Oct 1, 2017

As medicinal marijuana comes to the Buckeye State, Ohio University is going all in through a partnership with Black Elk Biotechnology out of Westerville, which has applied for cultivation, processing and dispensary licenses.

Black Elk, which has an office at the OU Innovation Center, is considering locating a cannabis cultivation greenhouse at the Theisen Industrial Park near The Plains, and while the city of Athens may not be home to a Black Elk dispensary because of all the disqualifying schools and churches and parks, a dispensary might be located somewhere in Athens County.

OU’s Edison Biotechnology Institute, with leadership from Dr. John Kopchick, will research and test cannabis through a $1.85 million deal with Black Elk, helping to develop products specifically designed to treat each of the 22 different qualifying medical conditions under the Ohio Medical Marijuana Control Program.

The cannabis-specific research is part of a larger program within the Edison Institute funded by the Black Elk deal for a five-year study of the therapeutic properties of natural products in order to determine their effectiveness for treating medical conditions ranging from neurological disorders to diabetes to cancer.

“We’re screening natural-product extracts for biological activities,” Kopchick said during a presentation by Black Elk and EBI at the OU Konnecker Research Laboratories at The Ridges Thursday. While research has already begun on some products, Kophich said, “we couldn’t start with cannabis because we have to get registration.”

He noted that OU does have a U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency research license that gives the university federal protection.

Kopchick spoke about how the program is a good fit for EBI considering the natural-products research that has already been established there.

“We have broad expertise in medicinal drug discovery and development and look forward to this new endeavor,” he said in a release when the partnership was announced last March.

While Kopchick is EBI’s principal investigator, co-investigators will include Shiyong Wu, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry and director of EBI, and Dhiraj Vattem, a professor of nutrition affiliated with the institute.

On Thursday, Vattem gave a presentation on the opportunities and challenges regarding medicinal use of natural products including cannabis, while Wu presented on the potential for economic development in southeast Ohio.

Black Elk co-founder Scott Holowicki also spoke, citing a lack of quality cannabis research not just in Ohio, but also in the U.S.

“There is no good research that is being done anywhere. That’s very alarming,” he said. “There are many states that have allowed medical marijuana. They have programs running in half the country.”

But the research from state to state shows very disparate results, and nobody has done intensive research on what works best for which conditions.

“You can buy as much as you want. You can take as much as you want. There are no guidelines outlining what you can take,” Holowicki said. “There aren’t enough people out there creating products backed by research. We want to create products that are backed by science.”

Holowicki said that cannabis is only part of the natural-products research, and predicted that the future of the biotechnology will pair the medicinal value of cannabis with other products.

Regarding cultivation, Holowicki said Black Elk is working with CropKing commercial hydroponics out of Lodi, Ohio, to make sure they are able to create consistent, standardized products in their greenhouse. Pending licensure next month, he said they hope to have their first seed growing by late April 2018.

“We hope to be able to not only create jobs and keep everything right here in Athens, but it’s close to the science, and the science is going to be what drives our business,” he said. “We want to use the science to create the best medicine we can, not just with cannabis but also other things.”

He mentioned maple extracts and pomegranates as examples of other natural products under study.

“Cannabis is not a dirty word anymore. We want to understand the therapeutics better,” Holowicki said. “(This is) moving so fast and people are capitalizing in so many ways.”

While many people are working on such items as packaging, Black Elk wants to focus on how to educate doctors and patients on best medicinal uses.

“We would love to create a line of natural products. I think the research will dictate what those products look like and how they are used,” Holowicki said. “We’re starting with the qualifying conditions, and we’ll take the five broadest and start to create products around those.”

Holowicki also spoke about the importance of creating products from natural products, whether cannabis or other things, free from chemicals and pesticides that could harm someone with an immune disorder, for instance. He said because cultivation and product development will be so closely linked, they will have vertical integration, allowing the control of the product’s natural quality in that way.

The meeting was attended by both state Rep. Jay Edwards, R- Nelsonville, and Athens Mayor Steve Patterson.

Edwards called the partnership a “win-win-win” for everybody involved including Black Elk, EBI, the end-users, and economic development in the area.

“(Medicinal marijuana) is already going to be happening, why not have it happen right here where we can take advantage of the research, take advantage of the jobs?” he asked.

Patterson cited the region’s economic struggles and something Holowicki told him early in the process: “Out of the coal mines and into the green mines.”

“I think there is so much opportunity with this throughout the county,” the mayor said. “I’m excited to see this happen.”

Patterson praised Dr. Kopchick’s research and his leadership in this new endeavor.

Kopchick has made a name for himself in biomedical research and the commercialization of laboratory discoveries.

Kopchick led group research discovery of a growth hormone receptor antagonist that created the drug Somavert, a therapy for individuals with acromegaly. OU has received more than $88 million in royalty income to date from licensing the technology to the Pfizer Corporation.